The magic of an old man's tales...
Brendan Kennelly grew up in Ballylongford - a small Kerry town where the people loved to sing and recite and pass on stories. Today we are reprinting two articles Kennelly penned for the Sunday Independent, together with a selection of his poetry...
Every Christmas Day, when I was a child, a man named Paddy Brandon used to visit our house when the dinner was more or less over.
He was an old man, in his late 70s. Small, slightly stooped, alert, with a moustache that had been wiped countless times during a lifetime's devotion to pint-drinking. Paddy Brandon was an old soldier cum voyager cum wandering worker who'd travelled a large part of the world and had returned to live in the village of Ballylongford in North Kerry where I grew up.
He was well-known to every person in the village, especially to the children. Among the children, I was one of those who were deeply and constantly fascinated by him.
For a good deal of the year, Paddy used to stand at "the corner" in Ballylongford, that is, the area in the middle of the village where all the best talk took place. At the corner, you'd hear everything about football and politics, long discussions about the weather and the crops, stories of births and deaths, greyhounds, hares, cows, bulls, money, England, America, history, hay, potatoes and, now and then, women.
Village life is brilliantly gossipy; and the talk, which I remember quite clearly, was vigorous, incisive and well-informed.
Now and then, it was quite savage, especially when it dealt with certain aspects of football. But, almost always, it was animated and funny. At the corner, the hours passed quickly for the men; and young fellas counted themselves very lucky indeed if they managed to squeeze in unnoticed into the groups of men gathered there, talking.
In such situations, Paddy Brandon was often present but, whenever I happened to be there, I noticed that he rarely spoke. He listened intently but few words came from him.
How different he was when there were only children present. Then, if the weather was dry and the sun reasonably warm, he'd sit down on the street, gather the children about him, and start telling stories. I'd never heard stories like the stories Paddy told as he sat on the street with his back to the wall of O'Connors' house. As he talked; he gave a special emphasis to the names of cities.
He dwelt on these names, repeating them over and over, telling us about the jobs he'd done in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin. Then he was down in the Kimberley diamond mines, and his words were jewels sparkling in the village sunlight. Later, he was in a Yorkshire coalmine and he'd repeat the Yorkshire slogan for getting on in the world: "Hear all, see all, and say nowt!" Years later, I heard the same phrase from an old man in the Eldon pub in Leeds when I studied at the University there. Naturally, when I heard it, I thought of Paddy Brandon, as I have often thought of him over the years.
But back to Christmas Day. In came Paddy after the dinner and my father immediately began to fuss over him, making sure he was comfortably seated and that he had a large whiskey in his had. After a few such whiskeys, my father made the request that he made every Christmas Day when Paddy visited us.
"Paddy," my father said, "Tis time for O'Connor of Carrigafoyle."!
There is in Ballylongford a beautiful old gapped Castle where the O'Connors, Kings of Kerry, once lived. What my father was requesting from Paddy was a long, comic poem about one of these O'Connor Kings who'd lost his lands to a Parisian jeweller - and who later, with the help of an intelligent servant, managed to recover them. Exactly how O'Connor retrieved his kingdom is the substance of the poem.
Anyway, the first time my father asked for the poem, Paddy Brandon pretended not to hear. And him with the sharpest ears in the parish! My father stepped forward, armed with the bottle of whiskey, and filled Paddy's glass. Half-emptying it at one go, Paddy would wipe his mouth and moustache with a gesture that was calculated and dignified. After an appropriate cough, he'd begin the poem.
It was magic. The lines poured out, lucid and long and musical.
Paddy was in his element. Everybody was listening to him, their full attention focused on his words. And Paddy got every last shred of value out of the drama of O'Connor's loss and recovery. I can still hear his voice as he set the scene for his drama:
Now the Castle of Carrigafoyle, by the way,
Is in Kerry opposite Poulnasherry Bay,
Where reigned long ago with much glory and honour
O'Connor the King of Iraghticonnor;
And there was not a merrier old mansion in Kerry;
From famed Knockanore to Portmagee Ferry,
With plenty of liquor and money to kick, or
To burn if you wanted to make it go quicker;
For whiskey was cheaper than paraffin oil
In the days of O'Connor of Carrigafoyle.
This was the first time I ever heard an old man reciting a long poem. It's almost a lost art now. Almost, but not quite. When Paddy finished, he also finished what was left of his whiskey and immediately held out his glass. My father filled it again, at the same time praising Paddy for bringing the story of O'Connor of Carrigafoyle alive again.
Shortly afterwards, it was time to go. Paddy got up from his chair unsteadily. My father nodded at me.
"I'll take you home," I said to Paddy.
"Thank you, young fella," Paddy said.
So there we were on Christmas Day, an eight-year-old and an almost 80-year-old, going up the abandoned, cold street of the village to Paddy's little house. I got him sitting in front of his open turf fire, now almost extinguished. I managed to get it going again. I looked at Paddy. He was already beginning to snooze in his chair.
That was the first time I thought of him as being lonely. Maybe it was that same loneliness which somehow made him a source of enchantment to children. There he was in his chair, asleep now, his head to one side. I slipped out into the street, closing the door behind me.
Back at home, among my brothers and sisters, I thought of Paddy. I always think of him at Christmas because he taught me that whatever magic we have is born of our loneliness.
First published Christmas 1991